Island Mountain Arts in Wells celebrates 40th anniversary

Since 1977, IMA has been building community and bringing the arts to Wells and the Cariboo

The arts have been a big part of Wells’ history since the town was born in the 1930s, when the Cariboo Gold Quartz Mine tried to hire miners who were also musicians, so they could be part of the company’s dance band and orchestra.

For the past 40 years, Island Mountain Arts (IMA) has been a big part of that history.

The non-profit society began with the School of the Arts in 1977, offering professional arts programs from ballet and music to visual arts.

Some of the highlights of the last 40 years include acquiring the historic Hill Meat Market building and renovating it into a public gallery space and administrative offices in 1988, and starting the ArtsWells Festival of All Things Art in 2004.

In 2014, after a successful fundraising campaign and with the partnership of Integris Credit Union, IMA bought a new property, which provides accommodations for artists, instructors and staff, as well as an artist-in-residence program.

Marilyn Rummel, who now lives in Duncan, had the idea for the IMA School of the Arts and has been involved since the beginning.

“I was living in Wells at the time, and it seemed like such a wonderful place to have a summer arts school,” she says.

“It just seemed so logical. I’m sure I wasn’t the first person to think that, but I was lucky enough to have people around me who thought it was a good idea.”

After holding community meetings, the group from Wells pitched IMA to the Central Interior Regional Arts Council. They also had support from the Quesnel Arts Council, the BC Arts Council and the Quesnel School District, where Rummel was a music teacher.

“It really began with a lot of volunteer support, a lot of support from Quesnel and Williams Lake.”

Rummel recalls they would phone up artists they knew and admired and invite them to teach in Wells, and many accepted the invitation.

“It’s kind of interesting because we were really know-nothings with no budget in the middle of the bush, and I would personally phone artists I knew about, mostly in music, and then someone else who was into painting phoned up a fantastic painter.

“It was like people just didn’t turn us down. I think of the fantastic artists who painted or sung or played music; we just invited them because we thought what we had was pretty nice and why wouldn’t they say yes.

“It wasn’t for us – we were doing something for the people of the Cariboo, so we were able to be bold.”

Rummel says she remembers a lot of artists started to move to Wells once they saw what was available in the community.

“We began to understand after about 10 years that we were having a real impact on the community.

“It’s been an amazing community, and now it’s such an important part of the economic picture of Wells, as well as the artistic picture of the Cariboo.”

Rummel is currently the artistic director of the harp school.

“We were the first harp school to operate north of the States that I’m aware of. I know any day of the week, I can talk to 20 harpists who can say their life was completely changed by IMA.”

IMA executive and artistic director Julie Fowler has been working at IMA since 2003. She first came to Wells because her friend Beth Holden got a job at IMA. Fowler and Holden had studied the arts together at Concordia University in Montreal and had started the Art Matters festival there.

“When I visited Beth, I saw the arts community that had grown around IMA, and I thought this would be a really neat place to hold a festival,” says Fowler.

Holden moved to Wells in 2001, and when Fowler visited her in the summer of 2003, there was a job opening at IMA.

Fowler remembers the federal government had cut a program, which meant the IMA lost funding and had to lay off some full-time staff.

“It was kind of interesting because it was at that time of transition. I remember Marilyn Rummel was still living in Wells, and she had helped start IMA, and I remember her saying, ‘well, it’s up to you guys now,’ and she kind of threw the ball in our court.

“It was kind of an interesting opportunity and challenge, too, because here’s this amazing organization that had been running for 25 years. It was really needing some change and revitalization, and me, with my passion for festivals, it really fell into place in an interesting way.”

In 2004, Fowler and IMA started the ArtsWells Festival of All Things Art, presenting performers, musicians and visual artists from across Canada.

The International One Minute Play Festival is also part of this event.

Fowler says she had high hopes to go through IMA’s history this year and share the stories of the organization and its people, but with the wildfires, it didn’t happen.

When she started looking into the archives, she found they had baseball tournaments, donkey basketball and dances as fundraisers for IMA in the past.

Fowler still wants to document IMA’s history, and she invites anyone who has stories or photos they would like to share to contact her at media@imarts.com.

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